Twirling, twirling, eyes focused upward on the canopy of newborn leaves. Birch, maple and white pine. I can imagine skirts flaring at my ankles as I turn on heeled boots. Swirling, swirling, surrounded by the shadows of stories clinging to white-washed stones that mark the graves of copper miners. A squirrel chatters and I float back to my body only to realize I’m not a child of the 1840s settlement of Clif Mine, but a modern woman in jeans, standing perfectly still with camera and notebook in hand.
Cemeteries make me dizzy.
My eyes and imagination take in the details so quickly I’m transported to multiple planes of awareness. The researcher within is rapidly scratching notes — names, dates, interesting recordings that include the memorial bought by a lady for her dear departed male friend or the twin stones etched with the details of a mining association. The storyteller seeks to know why a 10-year old boy is listed as “killed at the mine.” He was only 10. The feminist wants more clues to the lives of women mentioned only as daughters or wives. The historian rejoices over the discovery of buried miners born in Cornwall; proof the local pasties originated with them.
There’s also the curious white-wash of most of the old stones. It’s something I’ve seen in photos and it preserves the lettering, though the tremendous weight of annual snows have toppled and cracked many stones. Even the roots of trees have buckled fences, borders and an obelisk. During the 1910s, marble stones give way to to cheap cement and crudely punctured tin faces. That’s the era when miners went on strike. Was it poverty that changed the stones so drastically?
Spring ephemerals burst from grass that covers mounds and pathways. Purple, lavender, pink and yellow. Small and quickly blooming before the leaves of trees fully form. My daughter, the geologist and science writer, points out the swells of the sloping cemetery and says the plots look intentionally mounded. Paths are worn down and lupines are beginning to grow among what look like flowering brambles. Such a wonder is this place of life and death.
It’s where stories are born in the imagination.
Well, that is, if you are the kind of historical writer who geeks out over graves. It takes me a good thirty minutes to calm my excitement, to let the stronger clues dominate all the whispering curiosities. I thought to do a cemetery challenge — give myself 24 hours to research a name, find a backstory and write a flash fiction. Alas, my daughter’s dog ate my research notes. Seriously. I left them on the table and my SIL pulled what was left of the intact cover and the devoured notes from Jasper’s dog bed. “This yours,” he asked. Uh, was…
Absalom. Its the only name that remained on a rip of notepaper. I’m up to the challenge, and Jasper can go bite a squirrel. On Sunday, we went adventuring. My daughter remembers how I used to take her and her siblings to look for cemeteries, or historical libraries of stories. We grabbed gas station caffeine, dropped the SIL off at work (he’s a Park Ranger in Calumet for Isle Royale) and began to head toward Copper Harbor on the Keweenaw Peninsula. Cornish miners were said to have been among the first here and I’m hoping to find evidence. Otherwise, I don’t know what to expect.
My daughter pulls over at a historical wooden sign for the Clif Mine, established in 1843. Every town and blip on the map on this thumb of land that pokes into Lake Superior was either a mining or ore processing community. Ruins of rock buildings and piles of tailings spread out across the hills and swells of this country. Clif Mine remains unseen except for the ridge of rock that miners blasted into. We try to go to where the original cemetery was set, but the spring melt has flooded the road. We turn toward Eagle River and find Evergreen Cemetery, which turns out to be full of Clif miners and their families.
That’s where I found the grave of Absalom, last name devoured by a dog. I go to an online source, Find A Grave and search by first name. It’s unusual enough to come up with a single match: Absolom Bennett. Now I recall it struck me as an unusual combination and he “died in Clif Mine.” In, is a chilling word. Absolom was born in 1833, died in 1859. I then go to Ancestry.com to search records for this young miner, using his name, birth date and location. Nothing. I then enter his death date. Nothing. Then I find an article about the Clif Mine in the Mining Gazette:
“While legal documents and records, along with contemporary newspaper accounts, disclose the facts and statistics of the village’s history, the nearby Evergreen Cemetery also tells a sad story of the town and its people. It is a story of the harsh life in a pioneer town, in sharp contrast to the romantic histories portrayed in books.
An example of the hardships of pioneer life on the frontier is the grave of Willie B. Slawson. Willie was born on March 3, 1849. He died on July 26, just over four months old. Next to Willie lays his mother, who died in November of the same year, at the age of 24.
Mary E. Wright rests very near the Slawsons. Mary was the only child of William and Mary, who owned the Phoenix House. She died on March 18, 1862 at the age of three.
Absalom Bennett, an employee of the nearby Cliff Mine, whose parent company owned the land the cemetery occupies, was killed in a mining accident in 1859 at the age of 26.
Among the many babies, children, and young mothers who lay at the Evergreen Cemetery is Joseph Blight, Sr., who founded the fuse company. Blight is one of the older ones buried there; he died in 1884 at the age of 62.”
The article mentions a few other names I had noted, especially that of the Blight family. Joseph Blight was from Cornwall. Judging by the ornate iron fence, large family memorial and stately gravestones, it seemed Blight was successful. He evidently made his living by operating a fuse company. He also suffered from the loss of a child and so did many others. I always wonder what happens to the spouses or remaining children when a mother dies. If the husband or no other children are buried, I assume they moved on. Michigan Tech, where my daughter works, is a remnant of the hard-rock copper mining and is what remains of the technology developed by the mines on this peninsula. The college even has an archeology project with sketches and blog posts about the Clif Mine.
Sometimes, seeing a squirrel is grounding and can root me in reality. Sometimes, it’s a distraction. But for many pioneers, like those who came to the Keweenaw or passed through Rock Creek, squirrels were dinner. Right now I feel as if I have squirrels on the brain. My computer has been fussing and went blue-screen on me. I was able to open it in safe-mode and revive it. But my travel adventures and life hiccups have me off-schedule.
Bad news from Idaho today, too — I was formally notified to vacate my home. I have 30 days. I’m in touch with a lawyer, but it’s not promising. The most I can get is the full month of June. The reason? The letter stated that the owners want the property vacant while it is listed on the market for sale. So, it hasn’t even sold and we are being displaced because our presence is seen as a hindrance to their sale.
Honestly, I want to throw rabid squirrels at people.
Hang in there with me as I navigate waters as rocky as some of the Keweenaw shoreline. Tomorrow I have a long drive to Minneapolis. I meet up with friends and hopefully a client whose contract I desperately need to renew or else I’ll be homeless and penniless. Not a good combination, but perhaps reason to start looking up recipes for wild squirrel stew. The thing about being a writer is that they can take away my office, my desk, my pencils, but no one can stop me twirling beneath the broad canopy of my imagination. Stories will continue. Compilations might be out of order and I’ll be on and off as I travel. “Home” by Saturday though what to do about a home is yet to be resolved.
In the meantime, get squirrely and keep writing. I’m ever so grateful for this community! Your stories last week are all fabulous! I’ve been reading on my phone. I’ll spare you searching out cemetery stories, but expect you to go nuts over the prompt.
May 18, 2016 prompt: In 99 words (no more, no less) write a story that features a squirrel. It can be about a squirrel, for a squirrel or by a squirrel. Think nutty, naturalistic, dinner or ironic. Go where the prompt leads and don’t forget to twirl with imagination.
Respond by May 24, 2016 to be included in the weekly compilation. Rules are here. All writers are welcome!
Without Squirrels by Charli Mills
“Remember when that squirrel nested in the walls?” Cobb blew smoke from his pipe.
Mary smiled, sitting on the bench next to him. “What a racket that fool critter made.”
“I’ll build you a bigger house than this dirt-floored cabin, I promise you, Mary.”
She nodded. “It’ll do for now. I just don’t want it near her.”
“It’s just business, Mary.”
Mary snorted. “Business? You think gossips spread tales of Sarah keeping your accounts?”
“Don’t give a damn what wagtails say, wife and neither should you.”
“Build me that house, Cobb and no squirrels of any kind near it.”